An insecure boss is one of the most difficult to deal with.
“Employees usually expect their boss to be authoritative and confident, someone they can look up to. But every so often, bosses come along who seem to lack that persona,” said Lynn Taylor, a workplace expert and author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job.”
When a manager lacks faith in their own skill set, or they don’t feel like others appreciate their capabilities, they can take it out on their subordinates.
“A lot of their confidence comes from their ability to control you and your behavior,” said Lawrese Brown, founder of C-Track Training, a workplace education company.
There are a variety of tactics that these domineering bosses deploy to keep their direct reports under their control. Here are the telltale signs of an insecure boss –– and tips on how to deal.
1. They take credit for your work.
“Oftentimes bosses who are unsure of themselves need to prop themselves up by taking credit for your accomplishments,” Taylor said. “This is frustrating, disheartening and can impede your ability to get work done.”
One way to combat a manager who steals your ideas and stifles your growth is to find strength in numbers, Brown advised.
“Look for a peer to partner with and share the idea, but also look for an advocate at a higher level who you trust,” Brown added. That way, it becomes harder for your boss to get away with passing off your idea as their own.
2. They’re gatekeepers who keep you from meeting other colleagues and advancing.
Don’t expect any congratulations from this kind of manager. They may either be threatened by others’ success or lack self-confidence in their abilities, which leads them to see their direct reports as potential enemies. “I don’t want you to threaten me or expose me,” Brown said of the mindset of insecure bosses.
To limit your power, they often become gatekeepers who try to control the conversations you are having with other teams and the information you are receiving, Brown said. “They really limit what people know about you and how much you contribute to the department,” she said.
At worst, they can hold you back from getting promoted.
“Ultimately, they don’t want you to succeed because they are threatened,” Taylor said. “No one should be in a competitive situation with their boss. With this variety of managers, your career may be hindered — at least until insecurities dissipate.”
3. They micromanage you.
They do not trust the judgment of their team members, and you can expect them to hover over your shoulder for status updates.
“If your boss is insecure with their own competence, you will see them get rigid around control,” said organizational psychologist Laura Gallaher of the consulting firm Gallaher Edge. “This could look like micromanaging, being overly involved in everything or undermining your decisions. They’re doing this because they’re afraid of feeling embarrassed if things aren’t done exactly as they would do it.”
If you are dealing with a micromanager who lacks trust in you, “one of the best ways to counteract that is by communicating regularly, with frequent project updates, for example,” Taylor said. “You want to get to the point where your boss tells you to actually ratchet down the communications.”
4. They blow up at any perceived mistake.
When your boss feels uncertain about their capabilities, they can shut down and lash out when you offer feedback. “When people feel insecure, there’s less collaboration and there is less consensus-building,” Brown said. “There’s an overreaction to being challenged.”
When you work for this kind of supervisor, your behavior may change for the worse. You may become hyper-vigilant to the things that frustrate them, even though that’s not fair because they should be regulating their own emotions, Brown said. You become worried about how to avoid asking them questions or setting them off, she added.
If you have an overreacting manager, Brown recommends limiting the interactions you have with them alone and asking your questions in group settings.
“Often if someone is very explosive with you and it’s directly targeted at you, they know that they are treating you in a manner that if done in front of other people wouldn’t be appropriate,” she said.
5. They’re so hands-off you forget they’re there.
They don’t trust their judgment and can fail to be assertive. This insecurity over competence “could look like avoiding making decisions, distancing themselves from a project or not giving input. If it fails, they get to preserve the right to say, ‘Hey, I wasn’t involved,’” Gallaher said, noting that this kind of behavior does not make them an effective leader.
Gallaher finds the best way to cope is to create psychological safety with them so that they don’t see you as a harsh critic.
“You want your boss to feel like they won’t be judged by you. It’s the fear of judgment that triggers the insecure behavior,” she said. “Assume positive intent behind everything they do.... Get curious, not furious. Ask them how they’re feeling about certain projects or situations, and practice active listening.”
Of course, there are limits to how much you should attempt to talk it out with them. If dealing with an insecure boss is ruining your mental health, you should start planning your exit.
“Remember, your job is not supposed to be a life sentence,” Taylor said. “If it’s untenable, it’s time to conduct a discreet job search.”